It may be Pennsylvania’s most important uncelebrated holiday.
May 3 is National Skilled Trades Day, and it comes at a time when employers are scrambling to find 400,000 welders, 78,000 truck drivers, 18,000 aircraft mechanics, and enough certified EV technicians to fully staff electric vehicle repair facilities.
Stephanie Ferguson of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says, “There are more than 10 million job openings in the U.S. — but only 5.7 million unemployed workers.”
And a disproportionate number of those unfilled jobs are skilled labor, not white-collar work.
“This shortage is a direct consequence of politicians deciding that the ‘key to success’ is a college education,” says Antony Davies, an associate professor of economics at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University. “They’ve spent the past half-century — from the GI Bill to subsidized student loans to standardized testing to (possibly) loan forgiveness — pushing students into college. The result is that fewer students go into the trades, and colleges create low-value fields of study to attract students who aren’t best suited to a college education.”
In the last half of the 20th century, Americans who obtained a bachelor’s degree consistently earned more over their careers than non-degree holders. But that earnings edge has been eroding for years due to soaring tuition costs, student loan debt, and corporate America’s insistence on demanding college degrees for even the lowliest positions. Today, the median bachelor’s degree has a net return on investment (increase in lifetime earnings minus tuition) of $306,000, according to the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity.
While some degrees are worth millions of dollars in return on investment — computer and engineering programs, for example — others have no net financial value or even a negative return on investment.
Meanwhile, young people who enter the skilled trades workforce after completing training at a proprietary school, community college or union apprenticeship program can earn significant money and enjoy the security of knowing their skills will almost always be in demand. The median salary for a respiratory therapist is $98,000. Construction managers earn a median of $120,000, while elevator mechanics earn $88,000. The list goes on and on. And some of these trade-school-trained young people eventually end up in the management positions so desperately sought by college grads.
“There’s a huge need for more workers across the HVAC and plumbing industry,” said Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association chairman Kevin Tindall. “Contractor business owners are looking for HVAC and plumbing technicians coming out of apprenticeship programs and trade schools, but we hear manufacturers and suppliers also have open marketing, sales and management positions to fill. A skilled trade education can be an advantage in finding a job with those employers.”
Despite these realities, policymakers and many Americans view trade jobs as having a lower status than even the most menial work done by college degree holders.
“There’s a misconception about men and women in the trades,” says Jim Snell, business manager of Steamfitters Local 420 in Philadelphia. “Few people really understand or appreciate the level of education and training these workers receive. In many cases, these men and women are getting on-the-job training while they’re studying and learning their craft, and they usually go into a good-paying job immediately after graduation.”
Part of the challenge is that skilled laborers tend to be older, and older workers left the workforce in large numbers during the COVID crisis. As workers age out of the skilled trades, reports the staffing firm PeopleReady, fewer younger workers enter these files. Its data show 40 percent of the 12 million people in the skilled trades workforce are over the age of 45, with nearly half of those workers over the age of 55.
“Fewer than 9 percent of workers aged 19-24 are entering the trades,” it reports.
Just across the river from Easton, Pa., the Phillipsburg foundry is feeding economic growth with skilled labor.
“Both the manufacturing and skilled trade sectors are critical industries to our economy,” said Laura Clark, Vice President, Corporate Communications at McWane Inc, the parent company to the Phillipsburg foundry. “At McWane, we know the challenges of the 21st century will require companies like us to invest in the next generation of technical and trades workforce. That’s why we started our skilled trades scholarship program in 2021, to open the door for people looking to forge a career in industries like ours. And that vision of opportunity permeates through all of our businesses.”
And Keith Mallet, General Manager of the McWane Ductile’s Phillipsburg plant says young workers are finding their path to economic success through the trades.
“As one of the area’s largest employers and economic contributors, we are committed to finding ways to help young people here build a bright future,” said Keith Mallet, General Manager of the McWane Ductile’s Phillipsburg plant. “At McWane Ductile New Jersey, we have had partnerships with the Warren County Technical School as well as Phillipsburg High School for nearly a decade. We are proud to be a part of a culture that prioritizes investments that give kids new opportunities and ensures they have the training and education needed to succeed.”